Seeking Wisdom: Spiritual Direction and the Moral Life by Rev. Dennis J. Billy

Seeking Wisdom: Spiritual Direction and the Moral Life cover imageSummary: A series of lectures about spiritual direction from the perspective of St. Alphonsus de Liguori, who emphasized the moral life and prayer and was particularly interested in expanding spiritual direction to the laity and the urban poor in 18th century Naples.

I like to keep one book in my current reading (or listening) stack directly on spiritual direction. This keeps me thinking about my practice of spiritual direction and exploring new dimensions or deepening my practice as a spiritual director. Seeking Wisdom: Spiritual Direction and the Moral Life by Rev. Dennis J. Billy was a complete unknown. I did not know anything about St Alphonsus, and there were no reviews on the lectures. But because I have almost entirely read about spiritual direction out of the Ignatian or Benedictine tradition, I picked it up. These are 22 roughly fifteen-minute lectures. Mostly I listened to them while walking my dog over a period of about two months.

The main weakness of the lectures is that they do not have a clear target audience. The early lectures are very basic introductions to spiritual direction, which is helpful for people who are new. But those with a background will be bored for the book’s first quarter (I nearly gave up at this point.) Then, the last three-quarters of the lectures will be interesting for those with a spiritual direction background, but those new to spiritual direction, especially those not Catholic, will be lost.

Those who are Protestant without much background in Catholicism can learn here, but terminology and theological orientation may be hard to overcome. Two minor examples: earlier in the book, the lecturer talks about taking on a Christological focus on spiritual direction, which means something slightly different in a protestant world. In his perspective, this is about becoming like Christ to others, which many Protestants may resist as a viable perspective. Another example is the medieval understanding of spiritual formation, which has three stages: the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive. This language is very common in Catholic presentations of spiritual formation but almost completely absent from Protestant understandings of spiritual formation.

Parts two and three are mostly about the main Alphansian-oriented spiritual direction model and its connection to the moral life. These are helpful lectures, but not as detailed as I would like. That being said, with the presentation that is here, I am a bit worried that it can lead to moralism and behavior/sin management. That not only has a problem with focusing on external matters but also has the problem of trying to become worthy instead of relying on grace. I am sure those who are familiar with the model are aware of that as a critique. But it is easy to see how this model of spiritual direction, which grew out of a confessional orientation, can be focused on moral behavior. It was also oriented toward the poor and lower class, and while I am sure that those who practice this model of spiritual direction know of the potential for paternalism, I think that paternalism, moralism, and cultural biases are an area that would need to be paid attention to.

One of the problems with integrating my understanding of the Alphansian model into my practices of spiritual direction is that I have a different understanding of how virtue is established. I am interested in virtue, but I understand virtue to be internal and based on the conviction of the holy spirit, not based on moral law. It is not that I think that law has no value. I want murder and speeding to be illegal. But the legal limits to the speed we drive are about convention and safety, not primarily about moral law. And while I think it is important to keep laws about murder, and I do think they are rooted ultimately in morality, simply having laws does not stop murder from occurring.

My wife is working on her dissertation for a doctorate in education. Her topic is about the influence of teaching practices on student motivation. I have absorbed enough from our conversations and editing her papers to be convinced that while external motivation has some role, internal motivation is superior. A student who only learns because of the rewards that they get will learn. However, the student will stop doing the work once the exterior motivation is removed. On the other hand, students with an interior motivation to learn will work apart from the exterior motivation, and in many cases, exterior motivation may actually decrease interior motivation.

The difficulty is that not everyone is intrinsically (or interiorly) motivated. So there needs to be some mix of interior and exterior motivation but in a balance where the exterior motivation does not negatively impact those who are internally motivated, and there is not so little exterior motivation that those who are externally motivated do not give up. I have taken this understanding to my practice of spiritual direction and primarily sought ways to help ask questions to enhance interior motivation. My experience is also that the largest problem most people have in the spiritual life is not wanting to act right, but rightly seeing God as loving and not primarily as judgemental. A judgemental God is an exteriorly motivating force, while a loving God is an interiorly motivating force.

Part four is attempting to look at how the model can be used by non-Christians. Because the moralism of this model is oriented toward Natural Law (something I am skeptical of already), it attempts to use natural law models to connect with other religious traditions. I am seeking to understand other models of spiritual direction to understand my own orientations better and seek to learn and incorporate parts that may be compatible. But these end lectures feel like old-school liberalism’s understanding of finding the least common denominator where all faith traditions are the same. But that just isn’t true. It was an old-school assumption that has been well debunked.

My understanding of spiritual direction is that this is a work of the Holy Spirit we partner in. Other religious traditions can attempt to use models or theoretical frameworks, but I have no interest in trying to either be a spiritual director for people who follow other religious traditions or try to instruct other religious traditions about what should be incorporated into a spiritual direction model that they are using. Both would require that I speak into a tradition I do not know.

Overall, I cannot really recommend this set of lectures. Only one of the four sections was something I was looking for. Even that section I was very skeptical about because it was developed out of a model of spiritual direction that was trying to move poor to middle-class values in a way that would be paternalistic in the wrong hands. The lectures as a whole were just not focused enough and did not have a clear understanding of who the audience should be, which means that it was trying to reach an audience that was too large and not serving any part of the audience well. On the other hand, I was forced to think about my own practice of spiritual direction, so there was value in listening to the lectures, even if I mostly disagreed with them.

Seeking Wisdom: Spiritual Direction and the Moral Life by Rev. Dennis J. Billy Purchase Link: Audiobook

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